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Free Agent

Harriet-movie-review-tubman-cynthia-erivo
Glen Wilson/Focus Features

MOVIE REVIEW
Harriet (2019)

It is always wonderful to see a movie made by the right person at the right time. Kasi Lemmons has been one of the very few black female film directors working in Hollywood for the last quarter century, and Harriet Tubman is an American heroine. For her to tell the story of Tubman’s life is a marriage of subject and filmmaker such that we rarely get to see. And oh, it’s worth it.

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Souped Nazi

Jojo-rabbit-movie-review-taika-waititi-roman-griffin-davis
Kimberley French/Fox Searchlight Pictures

MOVIE REVIEW
Jojo Rabbit (2019)

It’s not that we didn’t think he had it in him. But it’s a sad reality that not everyone can make the jump from the minors to the majors. There are plenty of movie directors who can handle $5 million brilliantly but who choke under the pressure of $10 million, or $100 million. Or they can handle the pressure but not the studio. Or they can handle the studio but not the actors. Or they can do it, but only as a controlled implosion. It’s very, very rare for someone to not only do it all, but to make it look easy.

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Baiting for Tonight

Hustlers-movie-review-constance-wu-jennifer-lopez
STX Financing, LLC

MOVIE REVIEW
Hustlers (2019)

What an entrance. About 10 minutes into “Hustlers,” Jennifer Lopez does a pole-dance routine that will go down in cinematic history as one of the most unforgettable character introductions since Rita Hayworth in “Gilda.” And this time it’s to no less of a song than “Criminal” by Fiona Apple. Constance Wu has nothing to do but stare in shock, and man, do we agree with her. The next scene is of Ms. Lopez in that outfit and a fur coat on a rooftop, smoking and looking so unbelievably beautiful that you almost forget you’re watching a based-on-a-true-story movie about a gang of strippers who drug and rob a bunch of men. As bait to get us on a hook, “Hustlers” uses the power of Ms. Lopez’s body very, very effectively. But it doesn’t reel us in as far as we should.

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Fake It Till You Make It

J-t-leroy-movie-review-kristen-stewart-laura-dern
Allen Fraser/BFI Flare 2019

MOVIE REVIEW
J. T. LeRoy (2019)

Finally, Kristen Stewart gets a part that makes her happy. Ms. Stewart is notorious for her discomfort with the fame that has been the result of her acting talent – look at the photos of her barely hiding her misery on any red carpet. This feeling is the entire point of her character, Savannah, in “J. T. Leroy,” an inspired-by-true-events story of a famous literary hoax that captivated America last decade. The hoax is revealed right at the start. What the movie explores is why the characters needed to do it.

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Out, of Africa

Rafiki-movie-review-samantha-mugatsia-sheila-munyiva
Film Movement

MOVIE REVIEW
Rafiki (2019)

In the apocryphal past, movies were made locally and shown locally, so the makers could make assumptions about what the audience would understand – or not. Cultural relevance was a given and issues of representation were not as fraught as they are currently becoming, so characters onscreen were designed to be coathangers for the audience to hang their own personalities onto. Smaller movies can be much more widely seen these days but now the marketplace is global, there are so many options it’s almost impossible to decide. Even as the market widens – and it’s possible to make a movie on your phone and upload it to the Internet for the world to enjoy – the stories which tend to achieve the greatest success tend to center the same pale, male and stale characters as ever. There’s backlash, of course. Marvel is finally being called out for making blockbusters for over a decade without yet acknowledging that gay people exist, for example. Luckily, in other parts of the cinematic galaxy, we still have movies about regular heroes, just about. “Rafiki” is about two of them. The incredible story of two Kenyan girls in love as a superhero film, I hear you say? That’s right. Being gay is illegal in Kenya, and therefore the mere idea of making a movie about a lesbian relationship is an impossible act. But director Wanuri Kahiu did it, and so we have to ask ourselves, was all this courage worth it?

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The Grand Ole Opry Ain't So Grand

Wild-rose-movie-review-jessie-buckley
2019 Tribeca Film Festival

MOVIE REVIEW
Wild Rose (2019)

Concerning a Scot with country music aspirations, “Wild Rose” is predictable and just as predictably crowd-pleasing. Drug-trafficking ex-con? Check. Unemployable? Check. Broke? Check. Irresponsible single parent? Check. Long-suffering grandmother (played by Julie Walters)? Check. Resentful kids? Check. Mamas and prison and getting drunk? Check. Impossible dream? Check. Talent? Check. By merely connecting the dots, the screenplay practically writes itself.

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Charlie's Angels of Death

Charlie-says-movie-review-sosie-bacon-matt-smith-marianne-rendón
IFC Films

MOVIE REVIEW
Charlie Says (2019)

Director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner explore the Manson family lore through a couple of literary entry points, namely “The Family” by Ed Sanders and “The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten” by Karlene Faith, who as a graduate student worked in the California Institute for Women with Manson women Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Ms. Van Houten. Having grown up in a cult herself, Ms. Turner’s firsthand experience also promises to imbue the film with insight.

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Much Ink Spilled

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A24

MOVIE REVIEW
Skin (2019)

Guy Nattiv made a live-action short film called “Skin” that went on to win an Academy Award despite its reprehensible take on white supremacy and racial injustice. Then after pouting with his wife-producer Jamie Ray Newman at the press call backstage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Mr. Nattiv went on to make a feature, also titled “Skin,” which deals with the same subject matter. Fortunately, that is where most of the similarities end.

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Who Is the Vainest of Them All?

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Emmanuelle Jacobson-Roques/2019 Tribeca Film Festival

MOVIE REVIEW
‎White as Snow (2019)

Anne Fontaine gives “Snow White” a contemporary makeover by recasting the evil stepmother as a hotel owner (played by Isabelle Huppert, bien sur) and the seven dwarfs as men hopelessly charmed by stepdaughter Claire (Lou de Laâge) during her exile in their bucolic village. It may sound inspired, but by what exactly is not clear. In fact, it’s not apparent that Ms. Fontaine necessarily has anything in particular to say about either the timelessness of the Brothers Grimm tale or the times that we live in.

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Manchu Work

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Ian Cook/Netflix

MOVIE REVIEW
American Factory (2019)

When General Motors’s Moraine Assembly operations in Ohio shuttered in December 2008 after 27 years of operation, there were few prospects for its 2,400 workers. When Chinese-owned Fuyao Glass set up shop there in 2014, economically depressed local residents greeted it as if it were the Second Coming. But before the honeymoon even got underway, Senator Sherrod Brown party-pooped in a speech at the factory’s opening ceremony by urging the workers to organize.

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